Lanterns: Day Twenty-One

Daybreak. That’s the word Abby kept turning over and over in her head as they made the long march to ‘home’. She was positive Mr. Walden had said it by accident, and she was positive she knew why. The other representatives for the possessed kept everything close to the chest — ‘the summoner,’ ‘our commands’ — things like that. But Walden seemed happy to spill his guts so long as he could do it from a position of gloating.

He’d always been an officious little horse apple when she’d worked for him, and it looked like that hatred of her shone through no matter if another soul was controlling him.

So she did the only thing she could to pass time during the walk: kept needling him in the hope he’d give away more information. Because ‘daybreak’ was useful. ‘Daybreak’ was power. It was the difference between fighting to beat a deadline and flailing into the dark, not knowing if you were too late.

“So, Superintendent Walden,” she said, “whatever happened to those kids your pumpkin let get beaten? I’m guessing she didn’t save them, since she wound up in Hell. Or did she decide to join in?”

“Shut up and keep walking,” he said.

“Oh, hey, while I’ve got you here, I was curious about my pension…”

“I said, be quiet.”

Claude had picked up what Abby was laying down, and kept trying to engage his old boss, Claremont. Unfortunately, the TV-station owner was made of sterner stuff.

“Say, Mr. Claremont,” Claude said. “Did I ever tell you I was having an affair with your wife?”

Claremont stayed silent, walking with lockstep precision — perfect gait for a would-be conqueror.

Gerard wandered along, lost in thought. Fleur looked at the ground. She had her hands thrust deep in her pockets, and Abby remembered how the girl had wanted a sweatshirt when they left Brightest Lantern.

“How much further?” Abby asked Walden.

“As far as it takes,” he said, not looking at her.

Behind them, several hundred townspeople kept pace — not the huge gathering that had encircled them; many of those had departed to, as far as she knew, continue pretending being human — but enough still followed to handily run down anyone who tried to make a getaway.

“There’s just one thing I don’t understand,” Abby said.

“Only one?” Walden shot back. “I’d figure the things you don’t understand number in the billions.”

“Good one,” she said cheerfully. “No, but I was wondering: so this summoner — guy, girl? — brings you here to take over the town. So why do the whole whispering evil stuff in peoples’ ears thing?”

“You’ve got it backwards,” Walden said. “There’s a shock. He brought us here to do the ‘whispering evil stuff,’ thing,” and the distaste in Walden’s voice at using Abby’s turn of phrase was palpable, “but we had a better idea. It doesn’t matter, though. As long as we uphold our side of the bargain, he doesn’t have a say –”

“Walden!” Mrs. Porter shouted. “Stop talking and get away from her.” With a sneer, Walden ran up to the front of the line, where Mrs. Porter had some softly-spoken, but no doubt choice, words for him.

And Abby smiled at the new info in her arsenal: Daybreak. He. Why they were brought here. Their side of the bargain.

***

Their new home wasn’t, as Abby had speculated, a cell at the police station — they’d passed that landmark, and the fire department, a few blocks ago.

What it was, was a pleasant two-story suburban job that Abby knew belonged to one of the richer families in town. The yard was done up with plenty of Halloween decorations, including a huge, inflatable skeleton almost as tall as the house itself. The skeleton bobbed in the breeze amidst a graveyard of cardboard headstones decorated with the names of various annoying celebrities. Fake cobwebs hung from the trees, and dual rows of plastic jack-o-lanterns lined the cobblestone walkway to the front door.

Abby and her group were led up to the front door and taken inside, where the heater had been switched on, leading Abby to suddenly be aware of how cold she’d been. Gerard, in his t-shirt, and Fleur, in her pajamas, rubbed their arms and stamped their feet in the toasty confines of the living room. Only Claude in his cardigan seemed unaffected by the change in temperature.

“There’s plenty of food,” Mrs. Porter said, “and bedrooms for each of you. Feel free to clean up in the bathrooms,” she added, casting an eye at the dried pumpkin innards still clinging to Fleur’s hair. “Needless to say, the phones and Internet are disconnected. Go ahead and sleep in — we’ll be by later in the morning to discuss what’s next.”

Without another word, the spokespeople departed, leaving Abby and the others alone. Abby twitched a curtain aside and looked out the living-room window as they left, and muttered, “Oh, would you look at this.”

Claude and Gerard came to the window to see a contingent of citizens had been left behind. As they watched, the people and their pumpkins joined hands and formed a line in front of the house. Abby ran to the dining room. “They’re here, too. Guess they’re making a circle around us, huh?” She trudged back into the living room.

“…So,” Gerard said as Abby flopped down on the sofa with Fleur. “We’re agreed they’re aliens, right?”

“What?” Abby and Claude shouted.

Gerard shrugged. “I was thinking about it on the way over. Aliens observe us, learn what buttons to push that will influence most of the population –y’know, religious junk — and, well…”

“Why aliens?” Claude demanded. “Why not Hell?”

“Why not aliens?”

“Haven’t you ever heard of the Fermi Paradox?”

Gerard blinked. “How do you know about that?”

Claude crossed his arms and frowned. “I have a PhD in Atmospheric Science. You think there wasn’t an Astronomy class in there somewhere?”

Claude and Gerard continued their argument as Abby sidled over on the sofa next to Fleur, who had balled up in a pile of scatter cushions at one end. Abby paused before she spoke. They needed to make a plan with the information they had; Abby needed to stop the two guys from wasting time over a pointless fight; and most of all, at this point in time Abby didn’t have a spare moment to coddle Fleur.

And balanced against all of that was the crushing fatigue. Abby wanted to fish those painkillers out of her shoe, draw a bath, and soak and sleep until she woke up in her new life as a zoo oddity to a bunch of demons. Or damned souls. Or aliens. Or lizard people from the Earth’s core. Or whatever the scumbags were…

She looked over at the high-strung girl: so messed up, but so brave tonight. And she’d done good, saying she’d reached someone on the phone — more useful info, maybe?

Abby reached out and touched Fleur on the arm, and the girl turned to look at her with those eyes that always seemed to be on the verge of crying.

Only this time, she actually was.

“Abby…?” Fleur said, tears trickling down her face. “…Am I going to Hell?”

*****

Today’s Words: 1217
Total Words: 24153

*****

Notes: A second post for today. On reflection, next year I probably won’t do these notes, as they’re singularly unhelpful to anyone!

*****

I’m attempting to write a Halloween-themed horror novel in October! Visit Day Zero for more information, and check out Countdown to Halloween for more blogging that’s altogether ooky!

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Lanterns: Day Twenty

“So that’s it,” Abby said to the assembled people and their jack-o-lanterns. “You chase us around, because that’s all you can do. You can’t possess us, you can’t hurt us…and now that you’ve hit on this…invasion, you want to suck up to us and have us turn a blind eye.”

Mr. Walden made a can I speak? gesture to the others, then smiled at Abby. “One error, there…nobody said we couldn’t hurt you.” With that, he raised a hand. The vines wrapping it unfurled themselves and stiffened into sharp, leafy points, much like the enraged ‘mom’ jack-o-lantern had done with its tendrils back at Brightest Lantern.

As one, many of the townspeople raised their own weaponized hands, too.

Abby nodded, trying to show outward calm while her heart thrummed. “Mr. Claremont just said I couldn’t think critically,” she said, “but here’s a little question for y’all: if you can hurt us, then why don’t you?”

“Abby…” Gerard said under his breath, warning in his tone.

“No, I’m serious,” she said. “You haven’t killed us yet; you’ve been wasting our time with this community theatre garbage…why not just snuff us out?”

Mrs. Porter reached up and scratched the side of her pumpkin. It wriggled on her shoulder appreciatively. When her voice sounded, it was somber. “What’s the point in trying to re-enter God’s glory if we immediately break one of the Ten Commandments?”

Abby burst out with a spiteful laugh. “So what were you going to do? What was the big super-villain plan, here? Ask us ever so nicely not to run and fetch the Army?”

“Always such a smartass,” Walden spat. “You have no idea how hated you are in this town, do you? What a favor we’re doing for you?”

“Favor?” Abby burbled, and the laughter returned. “Getting used as Satan’s buttplugs for all eternity must’ve addled your brains more than I thought. How can any of this be construed as a favor?”

The three spokespeople said nothing for a few seconds, then Mr. Claremont spoke up. “Respect,” he said. “When we run this town, you will be treated with respect. Imagine no longer having to be confined to that…sanitarium. You can walk down the street without being accosted, or yelled at, or looked at askance. You can live your lives any way you choose. No one will ever treat you differently again.”

“Who cares?” Gerard said.

“If you think I gave a damn about what these people thought about me,” Abby said, “do you really think I’d care what…creatures wearing their faces would think?”

“…Yeah. Um, yeah, what they said,” Claude said after a moment.

Abby looked around at the thousands surrounding them, then back at the three speakers. “So let me tally this up for you. You can’t control us. You threaten us, but then admit you won’t carry out those threats. Oh, and here’s something else: Alejandro over there mentioned that you’d ‘lost’ Dove. I seem to recall grinding Dove’s little passenger into an orange smear. So I guess that means you can’t re-possess someone if their pumpkin gets trashed, huh?”

The defiant glares of the citizens told her everything she needed to know, backed up by their turning their hateful eyes towards Claude when he said, “And we went Cro-Magnon on Parky Parkinson’s jack-o-lantern, too. Guess he’s free, right?”

Breaking the long, silent non-response of the citizens, Abby clapped her hands together and relished the echo across the still lawn of City Hall. “Guess what that adds up to? Us, getting in our van and driving out of here. You can’t make us stop, you can’t hurt us, and now we know the whole wall-of-bodies thing was a bluff, too. You’ll move out of the way if we drive straight at you, because you won’t want to ‘lose’ any more people.” She waggled her fingers at Mr. Walden and the others. “Too bad. So sad. Bye-bye.”

From behind her, a loud series of pops sounded. Abby spun to see what had made the noise, but even as she turned the pops became loud, sustained hisses, and she knew what she’d see before she even finished her one-eighty.

Citizens stepped away from their work, having used the sharp, jabbing vines on their hands to shred all four tires — and the spare on the back door — of the van. From inside, Fleur gave a high-pitched squall of alarm.

Claude broke away and stormed to the van. “You get your asses away from her.” He opened the side door and took Fleur’s hand as she stepped out, her eyes fairly bugging from their sockets as she got her first full glimpse of the massive, encircling throng.

He led Fleur to the others. The girl made to hug Abby, and when her mouth touched Abby’s ear, whispered, “I got someone on the phone.” They pulled back, a grim half-smile on Abby’s face.

“…Prisoners, then?” Abby asked, facing the speakers, putting her mouth back in a scowl.

Mrs. Porter shook her head. “No, guests,” and there went that weird audio-glitch again in her voice. “We’ve prepared a place for you– comfortable, nice, everything you’d want. And very soon, when our covenant with our summoner has been completed, you’ll be free to roam anywhere in Caliche you want.”

“This isn’t going to work,” Gerard said. “Long-term? No way. The minute some stranger drives through town –”

Walden turned to him. “After daybreak, it won’t matter. Anyone who comes through town…will be welcomed into the community.” Abby tensed up, scanning the crowd for weak spots. Walden noticed and laughed. “Really, Abby? You think you can run? You think you can break through a three-thousand-person Red Rover chain? I’ll say this for you — at least you’re finally taking an interest in recess activities.”

Mr. Claremont shushed him. “Even if you ran — any of you — you wouldn’t get far. As long as we command these bodies, they cannot get tired. You would collapse from fatigue long before they got tired of chasing you.”

The three spokespeople stepped forward as one and tried to take the elbows of Abby and the others, only to have their efforts rebuffed. “Get your hands off us,” Claude shouted as, beside him, Fleur tugged her arm away.

“Now, now,” Mrs. Porter said, not unkindly. “That’s not necessary. Come along, the four of you.

“It’s time to see your new home.”

*****

Today’s Words: 1067
Total Words: 22936

*****

Notes: Behind schedule, still. Did more napping than writing this weekend, but with any luck catching up on a lot of sleep-debt will energize me to catch up on writing and finish on schedule. Fingers crossed!

*****

I’m attempting to write a Halloween-themed horror novel in October! Visit Day Zero for more information, and check out Countdown to Halloween for more blogging that’s altogether ooky!

Lanterns: Day Nineteen

The echoes of the townsfolk’s collective shout faded as Abby and the others stood there, stunned, and the trio of possessed well-to-dos looked at them, nodding.

“You’re telling me,” Abby said, once the ringing had left her ears, “that thousands — no, thousands upon thousands — of demons from Hell are afraid? Of us?

Mr. Claremont’s voice came from the pumpkin on his shoulder, while it raised one of his vine-wrapped hands to wipe Claremont’s brow in an oddly affected gesture. “Technically, we’re not demons, none of us –”

Someone’s phone rang.

The jack-o-lanterns made their victims turn and look in confusion until one of them, in a cluster of people to Abby’s left, fished a phone from his pocket: Alejandro, the physical therapist who came to Brightest Lantern every afternoon to lead a calisthenics class. Attendance not mandatory, but in truth totally mandatory.

Alejandro held the phone not up to his own eyes, but his pumpkin’s.

“Dove Tranh,” the pumpkin intoned. “We…lost Dove Tranh. Why would she be calling us?”

Abby looked skyward, wishing she could wave frantically at the van to get Fleur to hang up.

Alejandro poked at his phone, and the ringing stopped. He put the phone in the back pocket of jeans encasing a butt Abby had admired during many a set of jumping jacks. But then she wondered what awful things the jack-o-lantern had been whispering in Alejandro’s ear tonight, and that particular switch in her head turned itself off and welded itself shut.

“You were saying something,” Gerard said, “about how you weren’t demons? Now, I know as much about the afterlife as the next atheist — from osmosis — but if you aren’t demons, what are you?”

Mr. Walden cleared his throat — another odd, not-right gesture, considering his jack-o-lantern brought Walden’s fist up to the pumpkin’s cracked slit-mouth to do it. But as he started to speak, Mrs. Porter interrupted.

“Maybe we shouldn’t spoil the surprise for you, Gerard Merchant. After all, you’ll be learning the answer soon enough.” Gerard raised an eyebrow at that, but fell silent.

“I never get to talk,” Mr. Walden muttered, and Claremont turned to face him.

“You never spoke up when your husband was beating your kids,” he said to Walden. “Why should you be given the chance to speak now?”

Abby blinked at that. Walden had been married for thirty years, but to a woman. Nothing about him said gay to her, let alone gay and in a relationship with a child-beater. What in the hell –?

Then it struck her. Not something in hell, but out of it. Claremont wasn’t talking to Walden; of course he wasn’t.

A pumpkin was talking to another pumpkin.

“You’re people,” she said. “Not demons. People. Well, damned souls, at least.” She looked at the three speakers. “I’m right, right? People sent to hell, reborn tonight on Earth as these…things.” Mrs. Porter started to speak, but Abby steamrolled on, pointing at her. “Brought here, you said. Dredged up from hell by somebody…somebody in town? But why? I mean, what’s the point? You come here, take people over, torment them with their past mistakes, then give that up and…and what?”

Claremont raised a palm to quiet her. “Hell means a lot of different things to different people. But the thing all interpretations have in common — and, as it happens, the one thing every interpretation gets right — is that Hell is the absence of God. Hell is a permanent barrier against His glory, His light, His infinite tranquility.” He took a step forward, and Porter & Walden took a step back. “We were manifested here tonight, on this darkest and most unholy of nights, by our summoner, and set to a task. But once we were on Earth, we felt God’s presence once more.” He looked at Abby, Claude, and Gerard in turn. “And feeling that again after so long…how could we ever go back?”

“You’re invading,” Claude said. “Taking over.”

“Co-existing,” Mr. Walden said, with a brief staring-of-daggers at Claremont.

Porter smiled. “We had…teething troubles at first. But we’ve gotten used to our…neighbors,” and Abby heard that ear-aching sour pitch running through the pronunciation of ‘neighbors,’ “and we believe we can make this work.”

Abby glanced back at the van. No one seemed to be paying any attention to the vehicle, and Fleur’s tangle of brown curls was ducked out of sight.

“So where do we come in?” Abby asked. “You claim you want to be friends with us, but you’re also scared of us? How does that even make sense?”

Gerard let out a little pfft of derision from his lips. “C’mon, Teach, you know the answer to that. You’re telling me you never saw a kid try to kiss up to the bullies that terrified him so he wouldn’t get beaten to a pulp? Goodness knows I did it enough in my day.” He shook his head. “No, why they want to be our friends isn’t the question. The question is,” and he spread his arms to encompass the enormous crowd around them, “how do we qualify as bullies to you? How can we possibly be scary?”

Claremont stretched out his arms in an imitation of Gerard. “We are scared, but we weren’t the first ones. We sensed the fear the moment we touched the minds and souls of Caliche. But maybe we shouldn’t be the ones to tell you…”

Behind Abby, a woman’s voice. She turned to see a middle-aged lady talking — and using her own mouth to speak.

“Don’t know why they let those people live so close to town, up on the hill. I just don’t feel safe.”

A little girl: “Mommy said I can’t smile at Miss Abby. She says crazy is catching.”

An older man: “That loony black feller that dropped his drawers on TV that time. What if he comes to town, exposing himself?”

A guy with an extra-thick drawl: “Alkies. Druggies. Useless turds. Criminals, every one of ’em.”

A teenager: “Why didn’t they send that girl to prison? She’s insane! Her parents, her baby brother…she gets a slap on the wrist for kill –”

“…That’s enough,” Abby seethed. “Shut your damn mouths.”

“You always imagined it,” said Mrs. Porter, and there was less of the mayoral in her voice and more of what Abby imagined something from the Pit would sound like. “You could picture them saying it, because it’s exactly what you would say if your situations were reversed. But it’s still a shock to hear it, hmm?”

“Yeah, whatever,” Abby said, putting an extra measure of bluster in her voice. This was worse than when Gerard said what she was thinking. “You said you — the pumpkins — were scared of us, too. Spill it.”

“We took over the town within an hour of the blackout that served as our gateway to this world,” said Claremont. “We claimed the staff of Brightest Lantern in minutes. But somehow all we could do to you and the other inmates –”

Abby bristled.

“– was chase you around like an episode of Scooby-Doo? Come now, Abby, think a little more critically than that. This is a small Texas town, armed to the teeth and looking for a reason to fight. Do you really think the four of you had superior survival skills to the rest of Caliche?

“We’re scared of you because we can’t take you over…and we have no idea why.”

*****

Today’s Words: 1248
Total Words: 21869

*****

Notes: Still two days behind, but beginning to catch up. Things should be put back on track during the weekend. Also, my capitalization of ‘hell’ continues to be wildly inconsistent.

*****

I’m attempting to write a Halloween-themed horror novel in October! Visit Day Zero for more information, and check out Countdown to Halloween for more blogging that’s altogether ooky!

Lanterns: Day Eighteen

The route wound through the streets, with throngs of pumpkin-controlled people blocking off some intersections to force the van to make turns. Abby knew they were being funneled to the center of Caliche, to City Hall, but whatever might be waiting for them there defied even her ability to anticipate the worst.

She saw the occasional face she knew, child or adult, as they made their slow way through the smiling, waving crowds. Others in the van did, too, judging by Claude and Gerard’s periodic pained reactions. Fleur had looked out the windows at first, but now had her hands in her lap and her eyes pointed at her knees.

They were close enough now for her to see the clock tower at City Hall: 2:00 AM. Technically November 1st, technically the end of Halloween, but the thousands of jack-o-lanterns surrounding the van hadn’t gotten the memo. Neither had the town itself: all the businesses and houses were lit up like it had just turned dusk.

Claude slowed down even further, shielding his eyes with one hand. “The glare,” he mumbled, as all those glowing pumpkins pressed in on the van, orange light flaring through every window. The people shouldering the pumpkins were blank-eyed and slack-jawed until Abby would look at them directly, whereupon they would brighten up and grin cheerfully.

Abby wished she could think of something inspirational to say to her group. Not that she wanted to embrace the role of leader, or anything, but she knew what it would do: Claude would nod in agreement, Fleur would cheer up, and Gerard would roll his eyes. It wouldn’t mean much, but they’d bond for a moment. They’d have solace for a moment, in the midst of all this madness.

Bonding over a shared terror of the unknown brought them together, too, but there was such a thing as getting frostbite from cold comfort.

They rounded the last corner, the van barely moving, and City Hall sat in the town square. The path defined for them by the possessed citizens ended there. Claude drove the last hundred yards as slowly as he could, slower even than the throng forced him to go, until he pulled to a stop, surrounded on all sides now by the good folks of Caliche and their controllers.

The four of them sat there, saying nothing. Abby stared through the windshield. Everyone looked so happy to see them. She couldn’t think of the last time anyone was happy to see her.

The people outside started beckoning to them.

Abby took a deep breath and opened her door. “I’ll go,” she said.

Claude opened his door, too. “Not alone, you aren’t.”

“Good luck to you both,” said Gerard.

Claude rapped a palm on his armrest. “Man, get your ass out here.”

“You can stay, Fleur,” Abby said. “It’s okay. Get back on those speed-dials, if you can.” Fleur nodded and shrank down in her seat.

The three of them closed the van doors, and Claude locked the vehicle with the key fob. In the eerie silence of the beckoning crowd, the chirp of the alarm sounded massive.

They walked a short way to where the crowd had opened up into a small, circular space in which three people waited, the jack-o-lanterns on their shoulders almost standing at attention: Mrs. Porter, the mayor; Mr. Claremont, owner of the TV station; and Mr. Walden, the school superintendent.

As usual, their mouths didn’t move, the pumpkins doing all the talking.

“Thank you so much for coming,” said Mrs. Porter. “We appreciate this opportunity to speak with you.”

Political-sounding even when it’s not really her, Abby thought, then said: “So who are we speaking with?”

“You’re talking to the people in front of you,” said Mr. Claremont, “only with extra…friends listening in and advising. At least, they’d like to be your friends.” There was a peculiar, non-human noise when the word ‘friends’ came out of the pumpkin’s jagged slit of a mouth, a bent pitch like a bad auto-tune. Like the voice wasn’t designed to make the sound of that word.

Abby crossed her arms to keep herself from shivering. She knew it was a defensive pose, but didn’t care. Right now, feeling as vulnerable as she ever had, she craved all of the defenses she could get. Too late, she thought of the hydrocodone in her shoe. Just one, man. Just one, to make me not feel like my skin’s slithering off me.

“Tell us about these ‘friends’,” Claude said. “I only ask because so far they haven’t been too friendly to us.”

“It was,” started Mr. Walden, but then he glanced to the side as though the words wouldn’t come to him.

“…Growing pains,” Mrs. Porter finished. “When the friends were first brought here, they were disoriented and driven by their commands. They…overreacted. But they want to explain things to you. They want to be your friend, as well.”

“Hold on,” Claude said. “You can start explaining things by explaining what you just said. “Brought here? From where? By whom?”

“Yeah,” said Gerard. “And ‘commands’? Who gave them commands?”

“The friends cannot speak their summoner’s name,” said Mr. Claremont. “That’s part of their bargain. As for where they’ve come from, they don’t use this name for it, but you’d refer to it…

…as Hell.”

Claude gently put a hand on his heart. Gerard’s eyebrows rose.

And Abby thought of church as a child, and how boring it was, and how she couldn’t imagine anything worse than sitting on those pews, listening to a droning preacher and out-of-tune choir.

“Hell,” she said, and all three of the pumpkins’ spokespeople nodded together.

“Actual devils-and-pitchforks, lake of fire, eternal torment Hell.”

“It’s…not quite what you might imagine it to be from –” Mrs. Porter began, but Abby cut her off.

“This man,” Abby said, pointing at Claude, “is the most decent human being I’ve ever known. This guy,” she said, indicating Gerard, “is a dee-bag, but he’s stood up and done his part tonight when he could’ve turned tail and run. Our other friend is a teenager who’s scared of her own shadow. And me…” she trailed off.

“You fight for your friends,” Claude said, and tried to take her hand but she waved him off.

“You do your best,” Gerard said, and she shook her head.

“Quiet. Never mind all that,” Abby said, her voice thick. “It’s not true, anyway. It’s just…we’ve all screwed up our lives, but we can’t have screwed them up that badly. If you’re telling the truth, why,” she asked, slowly pivoting to look at the enormous crowd, “would things like you want to be friends with us?”

And every pumpkin-jacked person there spoke at once, softly, but that many assembled voices still packed a punch. Abby felt like her hair had been blown back, not just by the volume, but the words:

“BECAUSE WE’RE SCARED OF YOU.”

*****

Today’s Words: 1153
Total Words: 20621

*****

Notes: Still two days behind, but beginning to catch up. Things should be put back on track during the weekend.

*****

I’m attempting to write a Halloween-themed horror novel in October! Visit Day Zero for more information, and check out Countdown to Halloween for more blogging that’s altogether ooky!

Lanterns: Day Seventeen

Despite wishing for a distraction, Abby thought hard about what Fleur had said — and about those kids in her class — as they passed a few outlying houses on the short drive to get to the heart of Caliche. At last, Abby dug into her pocket as they drove along, and fished out Dove’s cell. “Fleur,” she said, and tossed the phone into the back. The girl bobbled it and it landed on the suitcase. She looked at it for a second, eyes wide, before snatching up the phone.

“Dove will have everyone from Brightest Lantern on speed-dial. I need you to go through and call all of them, until you get someone who can join up and help us.” Not even looking back, Abby held up a hand to stop the protest she knew was coming. “I’m sure you hate talking on the phone, but these are people you know. I need you to step up and help us out, okay?” And with that, she looked back and smiled. “Kick some butt for me.”

Fleur smiled back, doe-eyed, and Abby turned to look out her side window as the girl began tapping and swiping on the phone’s touchscreen. They went by a farmhouse with signs out front advertising “Pumpkin Spice” everything…coffee, herbal tea, rock candy, hand-cranked ice cream, sachets, and more.

Gerard snorted from the back. “More like pumpkin spite tonight,” he said, and Claude laughed.

“Hello? Hello?” Fleur said, then: “No answer. Um, I mean, that was Liza.”

The somewhat crabby afternoon nurse. “No problem,” Abby said. “And don’t let it worry you if they don’t answer. It doesn’t mean the worst, not necessarily. They might just be hiding.”

Hark at Miss Optimism, Abby thought cruelly at herself. Where’s that coming from?

She looked out the window again in the absence of any answer.

Another house had a stray cat in its yard. The animal watched them as they cruised by, headlights briefly making its eyes glow.

“Animals are okay,” Claude observed. “I was wondering about that.”

“Pumpkins taking over dogs and cats?” Gerard scoffed.

“No,” Claude said. “Pumpkins taking over people and having them kill dogs and cats.”

Gerard didn’t have a comeback for that.

“Oh,” said Fleur, “I got voicemail. What should I do?”

“Who is it?” Abby asked.

“It’s, um, the — the phone just says ‘Dietician’ and I can’t remember her name. The new lady. Sorry.”

“Just hang up and go to the next one,” Abby said.

Claude drummed his fingers on the steering wheel: something quick and up-tempo. No one spoke, and Abby wondered if they were having the same thoughts as her, about what they’d find once the van crossed over the railroad tracks and entered town.

One last house, and Abby remembered the family that lived there — they’d been one of the ones that roundly condemned Abby at that final school board meeting. There had been plenty of angry parents, especially after the judge had waived all criminal charges in exchange for Abby’s year-long involuntary committal at Brightest Lantern. But when it came to deciding if she’d be allowed to keep her teaching job, though, the nays had it.

She could still picture the woman whose house they’d just passed shouting into the microphone at the mini-lectern where the public addressed the board, commenting on the poor quality of lessons her child had received from Abby.

“My baby girl got tooken for a fool!” she’d hollered.

Abby stared straight ahead, watching the upright safety rails at the train crossing got closer and closer.

Wonder if you and your kid got ‘tooken’ by a jack-o-lantern, Abby thought.

“Hello? Hello, is — oh, hello! Dr. Godfrey, this is Fleur LaPointe from Brightest Lantern, we — hello? Hello?” She looked up from the phone like she’d dropped the touchdown pass. “He hung up, or we got disconnected, maybe. I’ll try again.” She poked at the phone. “…Hello? Oh. Voicemail. But it’s Doctor Godfrey; should I leave a message this time?”

“Go ahead and stop for now,” Abby said. “We’re almost there.” She spared a thought for the man who founded and ran Brightest Lantern. Overworked, underfunded, barely enough patients to pay the utilities, and a facility on the verge of shutdown every quarter if the nurses’ gossip was to be believed.

And now all this insanity tonight. Dr. Godfrey’s bad luck was at an all-time nadir.

They crossed over the tracks with a triple-thump, and passed into Caliche.

“Wrong side of the tracks,” Gerard said. Abby could hear some high-strung nerves mixed in with his usual smugness.

“And that ain’t no sh–,” Claude started to say, just as the glow appeared through the windshield. Abby might have been excused for thinking the town was on fire, but she knew what it was. She’d been anticipating it even as she hoped against it:

Jack-o-lanterns. Thousands of orange-radiant jack-o-lanterns, each with a citizen to call their own. They lined the streets, making arms wave and slack faces distort into cheery grins as the van rolled by.

And as the van passed, the manipulated townsfolk stepped from both curbs, forming a wall of bodies that slowly walked behind the vehicle.

“It’s not too late,” Abby said, and cursed herself for the anxiety that had entered into her voice as with Gerard’s. “Put it in Reverse. Floor it.”

“…But there are some kids back there I go to school with,” Fleur said, once again showing everyone what a nervous voice should sound like. “And, um, some old ladies, too. Sorry.”

“Ah, God. Ah, Jesus,” Claude moaned, his knuckles tight as he gripped the wheel. “Jesus, watch after these poor souls,” and Abby wasn’t sure if he meant the ones inside or outside the van.

“…It’s a parade,” Gerard said, voice pitched up and halfway laughing. “Look at me, Ma, I’m the Grand Marshal in a parade.”

“Is that your dying wish?” Abby snapped, trying to ground him. She needed all hands to have their act together, because anything else…

…well, hell, if they were going to be overrun and killed, she wanted her group to take as many of these sonsabitches out as possible.

Gerard shook his head. “Wait…you believe me? About dying?”

“Of course not, moron,” Abby fired back. “You sounded like you were about to flip your damn lid, is all.”

“Wait,” asked Fleur, “who’s dying?”

“Nobody,” Abby said. “Nobody’s…” She almost turned back to look at Fleur, but couldn’t. “Nobody’s going to die,” she concluded, her voice a lot less convincing than she’d planned it to be.

But as the ‘parade route’ led them through town to City Hall, and the numbers of pumpkin-people lining the streets didn’t abate, and the wall of marching bodies behind them grew so large that even backing the van up wouldn’t accomplish anything, Abby let the steaming lump of truth in her guts sit there and fester.

The only reason the pumpkins would want to stop fighting…is because they’d already won.

*****

Today’s Words: 1165
Total Words: 19468

*****

Notes: Now two days behind! Catching up isn’t impossible, though. Onward!

*****

I’m attempting to write a Halloween-themed horror novel in October! Visit Day Zero for more information, and check out Countdown to Halloween for more blogging that’s altogether ooky!

Lanterns: Day Sixteen

They stopped at the nurses’ station on the way out, and Abby raided Dove’s purse for cigarettes and the drug closet for ibuprofen (which she told Claude about, popping a couple in front of him) and a half-dozen hydrocodones (which she did not, slipping them into her shoe).

In the garage, Abby opened the back door of the van and relieved Claude of the suitcase. “Here, Mister Not Actually Dying,” she said, and thrust the luggage at Gerard.

“What’s thi–” he started to ask, but she’d already closed the door.

Claude took the wheel and Abby took shotgun after Claude used the chain-and-pulley to raise the garage door in the dark. He turned the key, flipped on the headlights…

…and they sat there.

Abby turned to Claude. “We have to decide, y’know, now that the adrenaline’s starting to wear off.”

“Yeah,” Claude said. “Right or left?”

“What’s right or left?” Fleur asked. “And can I borrow a sweatshirt from your suitcase, please? I’m kinda cold. Sorry.”

“He means,” Abby said, turning back to look at the rear passengers and wishing the ibuprofen would hurry the hell up, “do we turn right or left when we reach the bottom of the hill?”

“Why would we go left?” Fleur asked, frowning. “That’s out of town. You said you wanted to stop this from spreading, didn’t you?”

“Fleur, things have changed,” Abby began. “When I was getting Claude, we had a…visitor.” She told the peculiar tale to the others. When she reached the bit about what was in the suitcase, Gerard dropped it on the van floor, and he and Fleur shied away from it as though it were radioactive.

“Now then,” Abby said, “we have to make our choice. Claude wants to go — he’s curious. I’m curious, too, but not so much that I’m not willing to betray the pumpkins’ trust and G.T.F.O. So it comes down to you two. You need to think about this carefully, and take your ti–”

“G.T.F.O.” Gerard said.

“Go to town,” Fleur said.

“Well, hell,” Claude said.

“I know one thing,” Abby groused, “we’re not letting that damn pumpkin be the tiebreaker.”

Gerard looked at Fleur. “Flower, you know we think the world of you, and I’m not saying this to be hurtful –”

Abby had a choice comment to make about that, but bit back on it.

“– but you scare more easily than anyone I’ve ever met. That’s why I don’t understand why you want to go to where the monsters are, instead of away from it!”

Fleur wriggled her fingers in her lap and looked at the floor. “Caliche is my hometown. I don’t want anything bad to happen to my hometown.” She looked up at him for a second, then down again. “I’m sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry about,” Claude said. “I was born here, too. And this situation has taken a…a weird-ass turn, is all. If they aren’t stalking us, and they aren’t trying to kill us or possess us, then what on Earth are they doing? We find out that, I think we find out how to save the town.”

“You seem to think I’m just wanting to pee myself and run,” Abby said. “I’m not saying run and hide; I’m saying run and get help. Go to the county seat and get the State Troopers, get the National Guard, get the Boy Scouts if they’re willing to fight. Otherwise it’s just the four of us. What can we do?”

Fleur mumbled something.

“Speak up,” Abby snapped, finally having enough. “You’re an equal partner in this, Fleur, so it’s time to start acting like an adult. Stop cringing in the corner, grow a pair, and –”

You always kick butt!” Fleur shouted, then immediately clapped her hands over her mouth, blushing redder than a wax apple.

They stared at her, which only made her squirm more, until Abby said, as gently as she could, “What do you mean?”

Fleur looked to be on the verge of tears. “Y-you always say what you mean, and you d-don’t take any…any crap off anybody, and you always f-fight to the death, no matter what. And now you don’t want to fight anymore, you want other people to fight for you, and I — I — I don’t understand why.”

“Why does it matter?” Abby pleaded. “Why does it have to be me?”

The tears flowed down Fleur’s cheeks. “Because if anyone can do it, it’s you!” she cried, and the sheer faith on her face knocked Abby back.

“Good morning, Miss Abby!” chorused the class, and she didn’t understand why they were looking at her like that on the first day of school. They trusted her, you could even see something like love on some of their faces, and it made no sense. She was there to score a paycheck, and they were there to fill out worksheets and skin their stupid, spastic knees at recess. Nothing more.

So why were they looking at her like that?

“I’m sorry,” Abby said, “but you’ve got the wrong –”

“Fine!” Gerard growled. “If it’ll stop all this, I change my vote. Let’s go to town and die. Three to one. Now can we shut up and get on with it?”

Claude looked at Abby for several seconds. She deflated, bit by bit, and sank into her seat. At last, she nodded. Claude put the van into Drive and pulled out of the garage.

Halfway down the hill, the lights came on behind them as electricity returned to Brightest Lantern. Moments later, Caliche lit up piecemeal, block after block, coming alive again.

“Maybe we should go see Dr. Godfrey,” Abby said. “Let him know the inmates have all escaped and he’s wasting juice.”

They reached the base of the hill, and Claude flipped the turn signal to go right.

“Okay, y’all,” he announced, turning the wheel and giving the van some gas. “Next stop: Caliche, Texas.”

On the way into town, they passed a broken-down car, its hazards blinking. Flanking the car were three pumpkin-ridden people, who waved at the van in unison as it passed.

*****

Today’s Words: 1026
Total Words: 18303

*****

Notes: Still a day behind — it may be the weekend before I get caught up…

*****

I’m attempting to write a Halloween-themed horror novel in October! Visit Day Zero for more information, and check out Countdown to Halloween for more blogging that’s altogether ooky!

Lanterns: Day Fifteen

Claude was unarmed, and Abby had left her trowel on the bed. The entryway to his room was too narrow, so they did the only thing they could do: falling back, quickly retreating into the wider space of the room itself.

After a few seconds of observing the two of them, Gladys walked in, slow and calm, not seeming to want to grapple with Abby like she had in the cafeteria. The pumpkin on the ground, even weirder, stayed where it was, curling its vines underneath itself like a cat settling down for a nap.

“Abby,” said the pumpkin on Gladys’s shoulder, through its unmoving mouth. “Listen to me. We don’t want to fight anymore.”

Abby had reached the bed and snatched up her trowel. “Guess that’ll make it easier for us to win, then.” Claude had ducked aside to grab his nightstick, and he moved to stand beside her.

“Come to town,” the not-Gladys said. “Things don’t have to be like they’ve been tonight. Just come to town and you’ll understand.” It moved her limbs with much more smoothness and certainty than before, backing her out of the room. “We want you to have this one as a show of faith,” and it waved her hand at the other jack-o-lantern, which briefly scuttled inside the door and sat again. “It will stay with you, peacefully, to demonstrate our good intentions.” With that, Gladys and her passenger left the room.

“Hey!” Abby shouted as Gladys left. “Hey, don’t you leave! What are you talking about? Come back he…” She made to run after Gladys, but stopped short as she reached the lone pumpkin. She backed away to stand with Claude again.

Weapons at the ready, they stared at the jack-o-lantern. It looked up at them, as innocent an expression as possible on its crude, glowing face.

“What the hell is going on…?” Claude wondered.

“One second,” Abby said. She took a step forward and looked down the bridge of her nose at the pumpkin. “…You’ve come a long way in a few hours, haven’t you? No more pretending your car has broken down, no more repeating the same phrases over and over. I didn’t even hear that other one whispering abuse in Gladys’s ear. So what’s the deal? What was she talking about, wanting us to come to town?”

The pumpkin kept looking at her.

“I don’t know what to think, Claude, I…” she feigned turning away for a second, then twisted back and knelt, lunging at the pumpkin with her trowel but stopping just shy of stabbing it “Hah!”

The pumpkin didn’t flinch, and all Abby got for her troubles was another burst of pain down her banged-up back. She didn’t let it show, not wanting to give the jack-o-lantern the satisfaction.

“Okay,” she said. “All right, then.” She stood, keeping her eye on it. “You’ll forgive us if we don’t rush to leap in the van and drive down the hill to Caliche. Actually, scratch that — I don’t care if you forgive us or not.”

The pumpkin continued to look at her.

“Guess you can’t talk by yourself, huh? You need someone else’s voice to latch onto like a parasite.” She leaned her head and cracked her neck, and the pain there eased up a wee bit. “But here’s the score: we’re going to need more to go on than your — her — word that things are hunky-dory now.”

“How’s this,” Claude piped up, tapping his nightstick into his cupped palm. “What she said about you being a show of good faith. Well, here’s some really good faith.” He pointed at the suitcase with the baton. “Get in there.”

Without hesitation, the pumpkin bumbled along the floor, its bunched-up vines wriggling underneath it like coiling tank treads. It reached the suitcase, levered itself inside with a plop, then turned to face Claude expectantly.

“I’ll be dipped,” Abby breathed.

“Okay,” Claude said. He walked closer to the suitcase. “Now…there’s one of two things that’s about to happen: one, I’m going to zip up the suitcase. Or two, I’m going to zip up the suitcase then jump up and down on it around a thousand times and squish you into pumpkin butter. What’s going to decide which of those things happens is whether you move an inch while I’m doing the zipping.”

The pumpkin stayed still. Claude knelt and reached out, but not without a quick glance at Abby. She nodded, eyes hard as she looked at the jack-o-lantern, and Claude proceeded. He grabbed the zipper and pulled it to the first corner of the suitcase.

The pumpkin waited patiently.

Claude pulled the zipper across the length of the suitcase’s front, to the second corner. Still no peep from the pumpkin, so he finished up, taking the zipper to its end, sealing the suitcase, its top tented by the jack-o-lantern’s stem.

Even enclosed, the pumpkin didn’t move. The suitcase rocked and shifted nary a millimeter.

Claude sat back on his haunches with a relieved whoosh of breath, and Abby reached out and squeezed his shoulder.

“You’ll excuse me if I repeat myself,” Claude said, “but what the hell is going on…?”

“Dunno,” Abby said. “But here’s the last test.” She moved forward and grasped the suitcase’s handle. “I’m picking you up now,” she called out. “Don’t be startled.”

“You’re warning it?”

She shrugged with her free shoulder and winced at the pain. “It’s behaved itself so far, hasn’t it?” With a jerk she regretted up and down her spine, she lifted the suitcase and its supernatural cargo. “All right,” she said. “Guess I better get this guy downstairs and tell the others. Then we’ll decide what to do.”

Claude nodded and stood. “Guess I better come with you, then.”

Abby turned, the momentum of the heavy suitcase almost overbalancing her. “Do what?”

Claude kept a straight face. “Don’t know if I can trust you to look after my suitcase. I need to come keep an eye on it.”

“Oh, is that the reason you’re coming along? Not because you had a change of heart? Not because you want an answer to that question about what the hell’s going on?”

Claude raised his eyebrows. “I’m just in it for the suitcase.”

“God, you’re a bigger liar than Gerard,” she said, and couldn’t keep the smile from her face. “Let’s get this show on the road, then.” She moved to leave, pretending to swing the suitcase close to Claude’s bureau. “Whoops, almost banged this against the furniture.”

“Knew I couldn’t trust you with it,” he said, and gingerly took the handle from her hand, hefting the luggage himself. “Give it here.”

Carrying the suitcase and its bizarre contents, Claude left his room, Abby tailing behind.

*****

Today’s Words: 1125
Total Words: 17277

*****

Notes: Didn’t write yesterday, so I’m officially a day behind. Will get caught up as soon as I can!

*****

I’m attempting to write a Halloween-themed horror novel in October! Visit Day Zero for more information, and check out Countdown to Halloween for more blogging that’s altogether ooky!

Lanterns: Day Fourteen

Claude sat on the edge of his bed, and Abby joined him after moving the suitcase to the floor.

“Say we do what you want,” she said. “Say we leave you here. You’re just going to close your door and hope for the best?”

Claude, the misery practically dripping off him, nodded.

“Because there’s just Gladys, and the three people outside, and a couple or so loose pumpkins, and if you push your bed against the door, they can’t get to you, right?”

He nodded again.

“How many people are in Caliche, Claude?”

“Abby…”

“How many?”

He blinked, slow and anguished. “Around twenty thousand.”

“They’re gone,” Abby said, and clapped her hands sharply, once, to make him flinch. “The blackout…when we were smoking, looking down on the town, there weren’t any headlights. People should have been swarming over Caliche trick-or-treating. But they’re all gone. Taken. You know it.” She laced her fingers and leaned forward, staring at an identical, mass-produced copy of the painting she’d stared at in Gerard’s room. “We’ve been fighting maybe a dozen of these things, all four of us — and we’re exhausted. When twenty thousand of them come storming up that hill to get you…do you think a bed shoved against the door will stop them for even half a second?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

She looked over at him, gauging his state of mind. She wasn’t leaving without him, but to get him to go she was going to have to do something five years of mollycoddling Brightest Lantern therapy had never done: hurt him.

“Y’know, I saw you on TV. The last time.” She watched him tense up in her peripheral vision.

“…You never told me that before,” he said. He turned his head, but she kept her eyes on the painting.

“I grew up watching you, truth be told,” Abby said. “All the other weathermen were stiff and uptight, but you were funny. You explained stuff about the weather without it sounding like a lecture. You were cool, ‘Cloudy.'”

“What you must’ve thought,” Claude said, “that last time.”

“I was in school by then,” she said, “finishing up my teaching certificate. There was a group of us, there in the Student Union, watching you. We had a ritual: we’d all grown up watching you, we all loved you, and we never missed when you were on the air.”

“Lord,” Claude whispered. He bowed his head and pinched the bridge of his nose.

“And when you went off-script,” Abby said, “when you started talking about your wife and how it was great the charity was raising money for cancer but how it was too late to save her…somebody in the group laughed.”

Claude gave a little sob of surprise.

“You always talked about it in group therapy,” Abby said. “And I’m here to tell you, it was just as bad as you imagined. People started cracking up when you were crying, and when you started taking off your clothes…? Oh my God, everyone was in hysterics. By the time you were naked — but blurred out — Claude, I was laughing my ass off, too.”

He turned and looked at her, and she thought briefly he might strike her. She’d never seen such betrayal on anyone’s face.

“And right then, right when they cut to the test pattern — I guess the director at the TV station decided he had enough footage to…to do whatever with…I realized I wasn’t laughing on the inside.” She crossed her arms. “It was like I was watching myself floating above me, and I knew how worthless I was for joining in the group like that. You were the last thing I saw before I went to bed every night as a kid, and a lot of the time the only good thing in a crappy day.” She drew in a breath, and it hitched in her chest. “And there I was, hee-hawing along with a bunch of college jackasses to try and fit in, making fun of ‘Cloudy’ Claude when he was in the most pain of his life.”

His expression softened, but the blow had been dealt.

“I’ve wanted to tell you how sorry I was for the last five years,” she said, “but when I met you, I knew I couldn’t apologize without telling you why.”

Claude sat there for a while, when at last he spoke. “I always figure everyone’s seen it, either when it first went on the air, or when it went online after that. And I always figure everyone’s doing one of two things when they meet me: laughing at me as soon as I turn my back, or pitying me.” He cleared his throat in two quick coughs. “And out of those two, the one thing I’ve never worked out is which is worse.” He stood, startling Abby. “Y’all go ahead and go. I’ll catch up with you, or not. This is the only place I feel safe anymore. Maybe I oughta stay and fight for it.”

“Come with us, please,” she said, and hated the whine that leaked into her voice. Pleeeaaase. “We need you. We’re…oh, Jeezus, are you actually going to make me say we’re your family? Because we are, Claude. You matter to us, and — and — and –”

He looked at her patiently.

“And if anyone out there laughs at you or pities you, I will hold them down while you beat their ass!” she finished in a rush.

Claude kept looking at her, but the corners of his mouth turned up, and he huffed out a little heh-heh at that. He took Abby’s hands and pulled her to her feet, then led her to the door. She dragged her feet, never feeling more like a failure at that moment.

“Y’all need to hit the road,” he said. “Get Fleur somewhere safe. God knows she’s been through enough.”

“And Gerard,” Abby said.

“What about him?”

“Well, he told me. Before I came to get you.”

Claude frowned. “Told you what?”

“You know. That he’s dying?”

“Gerard’s dying?”

“…That bastard!” Abby fumed. She looked at Claude’s confused face. “He’s…never mind. He’s not dying. Though he may not be long for this world.”

Claude chuckled again, reached for the doorknob, but instead put both hands on Abby’s shoulders and pulled her into a hug.

“…It’s not fair,” she mumbled. “You should be coming with us.”

He broke he hug and turned the doorknob. “Make me proud, Miss Abby,” he said, opening the door.

Gladys stood there, pumpkin on her shoulder, with a loose jack-o-lantern at her side.

*****

Today’s Words: 1102
Total Words: 16152

*****

Notes: Working this weekend, so no extra-long updates, most likely…

*****

I’m attempting to write a Halloween-themed horror novel in October! Visit Day Zero for more information, and check out Countdown to Halloween for more blogging that’s altogether ooky!

Lanterns: Day Thirteen

They took turns cleaning up in the little half-bath in the back of the group room. Both guys did a quick wash and now paced the rug. Fleur scrubbed her face, missing a few globs in her hair, and retreated to a corner, quiet and shivering, absently holding hands with the second therapy pillow.

Abby shucked her shirt and tried to twist to see her back, but knew the really appalling bruises wouldn’t show up for a couple of days. She put her top back on slowly, wincing at every new strain on her muscles, and looked at herself in the mirror, reflection blood-red in the emergency lights she’d long ago grown sick of.

Was the power off for good? When was sunrise? Or was this the world from now on: permanently dark and gloomy and ruled over by the jack-o-lantern overlords?

She marched out of the bathroom carrying a soaked and folded paper towel. The lights may have been off, but at least the water still ran, for now. Abby knelt beside Parky, who still lay on the floor, wrapped up in his personal pain. She reached out, hesitant, and gently swabbed Parky’s forehead with the cool, damp paper towel.

“Hey,” she said. “How are you feeling?”

“It rounded the corner,” he said. “You could see it from the ground, the way the cars tilted to the side, like they were going to jump the tracks. They didn’t, but even from there I could see the body fly out of its seat. And I knew right then…I knew it was Caroline. She flew just like a bird, then dropped out of sight behind one of the rollercoaster’s hills.”

“It’s okay,” Abby said. She left the moistened paper on his forehead and dug through his right front pocket to retrieve the key ring. Just as she’d pulled it free, Parky reached over and grabbed her sore wrist. She flinched at the pain but stayed silent.

“Abby,” he said, sighing. “Mean little Abby.”

“Not that mean,” she said, half-heartedly.

“You kicked me in the nuts your first day here,” he said, “remember?”

Abby nodded. Something was prickling in the corner of her eye; a loose eyelash or something.

“I deserved it,” Parky said. “I deserve all of it. I didn’t want her to get on that ride. I could’ve said no and she would have listened.” He looked up at Abby. “Maybe we’ll be roomies when they put me in here. You can give me a boot in the balls every day. It’ll be my therapy.” He laughed like a dying clown for a moment, then let go of her hand and turned his head aside, lost in his endless dark loop.

She watched Parky’s shallow breathing for a minute, wondering if she should take his hand in hers. She braced her palms on her knees and stood, letting out a whiny groan this time as the pain shrank and stretched up and down the length of her.

Not just my back, now, she thought. What good am I to the group if I’m seizing up every time I try to move?

The others gathered around her. Gerard absently flipped his stun gun in his hand like a magician fiddling with a deck of cards. Claude took Fleur by the arm and urged her to stand. He picked a stray seed from her hair and flicked it away.

Abby held up the keys and jingled them. “Garage?”

Claude steepled his fingers. “I was thinking we might do a little scavenging on the way out.” He looked at Gerard. “When you got your zapper, there, did you notice a phone in Dove’s purse?”

“…Probably,” said Gerard. “But I wasn’t thinking about it at the time.”

“We should grab it,” Claude said. “Cell towers have solar batteries, right? We might be able to reach someone. Day staff, maybe even Dr. Godfrey.”

“Isn’t he out of town?” Abby asked. “He poked his head into therapy last week and said he was on vacation.”

Claude shrugged. “I figure if anyone needs to know what’s going on, it’s the guy that runs this place.”

“Okay,” Abby said. “Yeah, the phone’s a good idea. Nurse’s station is on the way to the van, so it’s not a side trip. Anything else?”

No one spoke up, so Abby headed for the door, the others falling in line, Fleur bringing up the rear in a dull shuffle.

As they went down the hall, ready for anything, Claude sped up to walk evenly with Abby. “One other thing,” he said under his breath. He chucked a thumb at his chest so Fleur couldn’t see he was really pointing at her. “Baby girl’s falling apart. We should try to get into the pharmacy closet and get her night meds.” Abby started to speak, but Claude kept going. “The keys’ll be in Dove’s purse, too, right?”

Abby set her jaw but nodded. One more delay was all they needed, but the idea of hauling around Fleur in full freak-out mode sounded even worse. The girl was a stick figure, but she was a stick figure with teeth and nails if she got too agitated.

Nothing came out of the shadows to attack them, and they reached the nurse’s station without trouble. Abby wanted to take that as a good sign, but knew instead it meant all the pumpkins in the building were most likely off squeezing out a passel of tiny gourds. She dug through the purse, pocketing the phone and adding Dove’s keys to the ones of Parky she already held. “Just a minute,” she said as the others kept watch. She unlocked the drug room and stepped inside, crossing her fingers that the med cart had already been loaded with tonight’s pills. Sure enough, the caddy on top had four paper cups, each in a slot with a patient’s name labeled below it. She got the cup noted as LaPointe, Fleur.

Then she paused to take note of where she was. Pill bottles lined the shelves, miniature white barrels filled with pharmaceutical goodness. Abby had never been much of a popper — booze was easier to get, so it was mostly down to laziness — but she’d never say no to E or a good eye-opener, like the uppers that had contributed to her downfall.

And here she was, surrounded by drugs. She scanned the labels, not recognizing most of the names, but seeing some choice stuff here and there — hydrocodone, dextromethorphan, morphine. For her throbbing back, she spotted ibuprofen right away, but ignored it in the hopes of scoring some Tylenol III.

“Abby,” Gerard called from outside, and she shook her head. Leave it to him to ruin things. She poked her head out of the closet.

“Yeah?”

He pointed down the hall. “Claude just took off.”

“Oh, you have got to be…” Abby stalked out past the nurse’s station’s counter and handed Fleur her paper cup, pointing to a nearby water fountain.

“Where did Claude go?” Fleur asked, looking through the messy hair that hung in front of her face.

“Just take your pills,” Abby said, and Fleur wandered to the fountain and did so.

Abby looked down the hallway. “Did he say anything?”

Gerard shook his head.

Abby rubbed her temples. “All right,” she said. “Let’s go.”

***

The garage had no emergency lighting, but Abby held up Dove’s phone, illuminating the space. She unlocked the rear doors, and Gerard and Fleur piled into the back. Fleur scooted up close to the front, while Gerard hung back.

“You think you can convince him?” he asked.

Abby glanced to the side. “I hope so.” She looked back at Gerard. “Hey, listen…back in your room, you were going to tell me something. You were really going to blow my mind, from the sound of it.” She held up the glow of the smartphone to her face. “So…just in case?”

Gerard looked back at Fleur, then leaned close so Abby could see him in the phone’s light. He mouthed the words I’m dying.

Abby’s mouth fell open, but she recovered quickly, shaking her head. “My ass,” she blustered.

Gerard shrugged. “Feel free to break into the medical records room while you’re away,” he said.

“Well…well…why haven’t I heard about it?”

Another shrug. She wanted to break his collarbone to keep him from ever shrugging again. “Sorry to break it to you, but you don’t know everyone’s business. I told Claude, though,” he said. “Ask him.”

She glared at Gerard. “You’re lying. You’re just screwing with me, like you always do.” The phone went dark. “I’m coming back. You tell me the truth when I get back, you hear me?”

In the darkness, she could just make out his giving her a salute. “Will do.”

She triggered the phone again so she could look him in the eye. “And you keep her safe while I’m gone.”

He looked offended, but she waved him off before he could speak. “I’ll be back soon. Be ready to bust out of here.” She walked to the door back into the facility.

“Oh, hey, while you’re going?” Gerard called. “Grab my stash.”

Abby flipped him off as she walked out.

***

Claude was in his room, just where she knew he’d be. Safe in his cocoon. He had a suitcase open on his bed, and he looked up from the empty luggage as she walked in.

“I was gonna…I would’ve caught up with you,” he said, waving at the suitcase. “Just needed to pack.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Looks like you’re almost done. I’ll wait. Fleur and Gerard will wait, too, stuck in that van. In the pitch dark.”

Claude slumped as he stood looking at his suitcase. “I’ll catch up with you,” he said, sounding like even he didn’t buy it.

“Claude, let’s go,” she said, and reached for his hand. He pulled away.

“I can’t,” he said. “Abby…you know I can’t.”

*****

Today’s Words: 1658
Total Words: 15050

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Notes: Longer-than-normal section tonight…see you tomorrow!

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I’m attempting to write a Halloween-themed horror novel in October! Visit Day Zero for more information, and check out Countdown to Halloween for more blogging that’s altogether ooky!

Lanterns: Day Twelve

Unfortunately, Abby’s war cry was so loud she didn’t hear Claude, back at the doorway, shouting for her to watch out.

She raised her trowel, ready to power-slam it into the big pumpkin, then deal with its creepy mini-mes with a few brief stomps.

But she didn’t hear Claude, so she didn’t watch out.

The big pumpkin lashed out one of its vines, looping it around her fighting hand, and tugged her towards it, adding to her momentum and yanking her off-balance. As she stumbled, one of the baby pumpkins scuttled under her other foot and tripped her to the point of no control. The big pumpkin whipped its entangling vine as it pulled harder, adding an upward jerk.

Abby flipped over the pumpkin and landed like a dropped anvil flat on her back. The breath went out of her in an excruciating whoosh, and she saw stars. The pumpkin tightened its grip on her wrist, grinding the bones out of what could only be pure meanness.

Judo, her stunned thoughts managed to garble. How does a jack-o-lantern know… She trailed off; from where she lay, she could see Parky sprawled out as he wept over his Caroline. She pictured that one time a junkie had barged into the facility, looking to rob the pharmacy closet.

The guy had made a run at Parky, who’d grabbed and flipped him as easy as blinking.

Oh, no, oh my God, no she thought. They’re learning skills from the people they possess? We are screwed, blued, and tattoo —

Just then, she heard more yells from the doorway, and she twisted her bruised back to see. It wasn’t her gang screaming with terror at Abby’s defeat.

These were more war cries.

The other three bum-rushed the jack-o-lanterns, big and small. Claude ducked under a couple of lashing vines to jam his nightstick into the big pumpkin’s mouth. It shuddered and gagged and let go of Abby as Claude picked it up by its impaled mouth and flung it against the far wall.

Meanwhile, Gerard kicked one of the little pumpkins, going for the extra point. It flew several feet and splattered against a wall.

Fleur, hair flying as she yelled like a banshee, beat another baby pumpkin like it owed her money. It caved in after a few blows, collapsing into a small, steaming pile of staple-studded sludge.

Claude finished the trio. In one motion, he tucked the nightstick under his arm, made a sharp, brutal pivot, and stomped the remaining baby pumpkin into mush with one crushing foot, staring into the middle distance as he did so, not even looking at his opponent as he vanquished it.

Abby managed to eke a small gulp of air back into her lungs, and used it to croak at Claude, “Man…nice Bruce Lee.”

A noise like a martial arts yell sounded in the room, and for a second Abby laughed, thinking Claude was imitating the Dragon to show off. Then she saw the shocked expressions on everybody’s faces, and turned to the side.

The big pumpkin was roaring, a shriek that dropped in pitch to a freight-train rumble. Its shell cracked but not ruptured, it stretched out and stiffened its vines to support its weight, raising itself into the air on thin, green legs like some kind of bloated, luminescent daddy longlegs.

It studied the humans for a second, bulk bobbing and swaying on its spindly supports, then it moved on them.

The jack-o-lantern cracked its front-most vines out ahead of it like whips, keeping the residents at bay as it advanced. Abby grabbed a nearby punching pillow she’d successfully not used to break her fall, and held it out like a shield. She looked around for a weapon — Lord only knew where her trowel had flown off to — but came up with nothing. Even the idea of sitting up from her lying position to defend herself better sent bolts of pain down her back.

Gerard had his stun gun out, the arc crackling between its electrodes, but he was driven out of range like the other two. Fleur flailed at the vines with her stapler to no avail, and Claude cussed with dismay as one of the vines snatched the baton from his hand.

The jack-o-lantern backed the three fighters against the wall where Gerard’s booted baby had been smeared. It raised up three vines and held them rigid in the air, like snakes about to strike. Even from where she lay, Abby could see the normally-coiled end of each vine was straightened out and viciously pointed.

She cast about for a weapon one more fruitless time, her neck pulsing with pain as she jerked her head from side to side. Nothing. The one place on Earth where there was no way to harm people easily, just make them better.

I’m going to die on my back, in pain, aching for a shot of whiskey I’ll never get. I’m going to die angry, so angry, always so damned angry at everyone and everything, in this stupid group therapy room.

Maybe if I’d listened during therapy, instead of rolling my eyes and ignoring everything they said…

She buried her face in the therapy pillow, not wanting to see the moment when the pumpkin impaled the others. When it ran through her…her friends. As she closed her eyes, she saw the three wire-thin legs on which the pumpkin wavered.

Abby’s eyes flew open, and she pulled the pillow away from herself, its musty smell lingering in her nose. The pillow, five feet long and vaguely man-shaped, stared back with its goony, gormless, drawn-on face, begging to be punched for stress relief.

The pumpkin had three vines raised.

It was balanced — barely — on three more.

All she had to do was hit one.

Abby spun the pillow in the air and threw it as low and hard as she could, ignoring the ripple of agony up her spine.

She took out two legs, and the pumpkin went down in a tangle.

Claude, Fleur, and Gerard were on it before it hit the floor, weaponless, tearing with hands and bashing with fists, primitive and howling and pure in their destructive force.

It was a beautiful thing to behold.

*****

Today’s Words: 1045
Total Words: 13392

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Notes: Finished up a little earlier than normal tonight. That’s an extra half-hour of sleep!

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I’m attempting to write a Halloween-themed horror novel in October! Visit Day Zero for more information, and check out Countdown to Halloween for more blogging that’s altogether ooky!